Low-energy fractures of the proximal humerus indicate osteoporosis and it is important to direct treatment to this group of patients who are at high risk of further fracture. Data were prospectively collected from 79 patients (11 men, 68 women) with a mean age of 69 years (55 to 86) with fractures of the proximal humerus in order to determine if current guidelines on the measurement of the bone mineral density at the hip and lumbar spine were adequate to stratify the risk and to guide the treatment of osteoporosis. Bone mineral density measurements were made by dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry at the proximal femur, lumbar spine (L2-4) and contralateral distal radius, and the T-scores were generated for comparison. Data were also collected on the use of steroids, smoking, the use of alcohol, hand dominance and comorbidity. The mean T-score for the distal radius was -2.97 (SD 1.56) compared with -1.61 (SD 1.62) for the lumbar spine and -1.78 (SD 1.33) for the femur. There was a significant difference between the mean lumbar and radial T scores (1.36 (1.03 to 1.68); p < 0.001) and between the mean femoral and radial T-scores (1.18 (0.92 to 1.44); p < 0.001). The inclusion of all three sites in the determination of the T-score increased the sensitivity to 66% compared with that of 46% when only the proximal femur and lumbar spine were used. This difference between measurements in the upper limb compared with the axial skeleton and lower limb suggests that basing risk assessment and treatment on only the bone mineral density taken at the hip or lumbar spine may misrepresent the extent of osteoporosis in the upper limb and the subsequent risk of fracture at this site. The assessment of osteoporosis must include measurement of the bone mineral density at the distal radius to avoid underestimation of osteoporosis in the upper limb.